Althea Thompson shapes generations of young artists at the School for Creative and Performing Arts


On a rainy day in Over-the-Rhine I arrive at the school. It is an odd feeling pulling over on Central Parkway alongside parents dropping off children in front of this colossal feat of modern architecture. It is not the School for the Creative and Performing Arts I grew up in and I’m nervous entering.

Althea Thompson is waiting at the door, and as I walk in she is on the move, guiding me through the lobby, to the elevator. Efficiency is a high priority for a woman leading one of the most rigorous and professional high school art programs in the country, and juggling her work as a faculty member at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. I doddle along, taking in the surroundings, while she’s striding down the hall, leading me into her classroom.

It is dark except for track lighting and large windows looking out on an incredible view of the construction at Washington Park. Students are settling in around a hanging still life of birds and spheres suspended on thread. It is a far more sophisticated arrangement than the life-drawing I remember from class, straddling a drawing horse and balancing my work on my lap. Now the students stand at some very serious looking new easels.

In decades of teaching at SCPA, Thompson has been the catalyst, along with her twin sister Adrienne Thompson, driving artistic excellence in their department. Together they have built an intense curriculum of studio and lecture courses for grades four to 12. With the merger of SCPA with Schiel Elementary the art programs now extend to kindergarten through third grade students as well.

In high school, the students may qualify for Advanced Placement courses in Art History and Studio, which earn college credit. As a former student of Adrienne Thompson’s Art History course I can say the lectures were as in-depth and comprehensive as my toughest literature courses in college. Everything I learned about the history of civilizations in all my years of high school I learned in that one class, sitting in with a close-knit group of students, our Stockstad, Janson and Laurie Schneider Adams texts occasionally breaking the straps of our book bags. Althea Thompson introduced me to the romance of oil paint and the rigors of the studio. She warned us on day one that we were there to learn the craft. Anyone who goofed off would become the shop dog, washing the brushes and cleaning up after the other students.

Now the Thompsons run a department, along with instructors Alice Pixley Young, and Melanie Hart, that seems to know no limits. They have expanded their offerings in 2D, 3D, fiber, graphic arts with equipment to rival many college art programs. Thompson shows me how her studio class is combining skills of photography, graphic design, graffiti and painting in their first project of the school year “Touching with One’s Eye.”

“Everything that happens in the studio is also relative to the world, the community they live in,” Thompson shows me a wall of stencils and aerosol prints, the culmination of more than a month’s work on this project. It began when she took the class on a walking tour of Over-the-Rhine to photograph the historic neighborhood influx. “It’s getting them to asses that an artist will reference their own communities, and after they have referenced their community they can start transforming and readdressing through a variety of works.”

The transformative process began when they brought the photographs back to the studio. They spent a week in the lab, stripping color out of their digital photos and manipulating composition. This achromatic image became a template from which to cut out stencils.  Using a laser cutter would have been fast and easy, but Thompson felt the labor of hand cutting engaged them in an artistic dialogue between the processes of building and that of change.

She also felt the stencil project was age appropriate considering many of the students are interested in graffiti. But it is not just contemporary artists, including Banksy, whose work elevates the stencil to high art. It is a practice dating back at least 40,000 years to the Paleolithic Era. The first documented stencil is the human hand and the airbrush is the mouth spraying pigment on the walls of the Lascaux, and Chauvet caves in France and the Altamira cave in Spain.

Each cut was carefully planned so that the stencil created a structurally sound unit that would not fall apart. Cutting alone took three weeks. Then they spray mounted their stencils so that the aerosol paint would not leave a dusting on the edges. Instead, the work has the clean lines of a screen print or linocut. In this way, Thompson showed them that an artist can give a work the appearance of being done in a different medium. This artistic fabrication is a method common to Thompson’s own work, which at times has the appearance of being assembled fragments of architecture when in fact it is handmade Raku.

When the students chose not to use the spray mount, they got an entirely different effect. The edges are blurred like a photograph in soft focus.  In some cases, there are points of focus, with sharp lines, and other areas where the lines are softened giving a sense of depth of field, or racked focus.

With just 90 minutes for each class day it took them a month to create a series of aerosol prints, and this was just the beginning. Thompson discussed how the work is finite. Each print may have subtle variations, but they are all relatively similar. She wanted them to take the concept further, by making acrylic paintings based off of the stencils. For teenagers used to completing an assignment and moving on to something different, this was an advanced concept. By building an entire body of work based off of a series Thompson is asking them to operate like professional artists.

“We were moving the pieces from the photo, to the stencil, to aerosol prints, then asking how do you push these pieces further?  What colors will be part of the representation? How do I communicate these ideas with color?” she says.

The class returned to the lab. Before they were stripping color out, now they were re-saturating their image. Using the Adobe program Kuler they created a series of custom color studies with a limited palette of black, white and five colors including tint. With these studies as the new template they sprayed the stencil over canvas and made two paintings.

Thompson has shown her students that source material is all around them, and by building from it they are the architects of their own community. At a time when historic Over-the-Rhine is in the midst of transformation they are more than passive observers. For better or worse this landscape around them is changing and as artists they can be vehicles for that change.

In the second quarter the students move into more independent work and this is also a time to start researching career opportunities.

“They have to look at the reality that artists have to know 2D and 3D graphics to make themselves marketable.” Thompson is walking and talking now. We’re moving out of the classroom, in to another studio. A girl is alone in the room, pinning fabric on a dress form, stretching like a ballerina in Gaucho pants over her work.

“You know what, you are one of the most dangerous people I know,” Thompson starts in on the girl, playfully ribbing her.

“Me, why?”

“Because, you left that iron plugged in yesterday. Remind me never to advise anyone to be your roommate.”

“You know I did that at my house two days ago.”

“I’m going to let your mom know the same practice is happening at school.”

The room is equipped for a variety of projects in 3D arts. There are sewing machines, potters wheels, welding and shop equipment, and a kiln room, which includes Raku and glass kilns. I remember we had one kiln in the old school building. Thompson remarks on how much safer the new facility is because her students are no longer exposed to a kiln, which can be a burn risk, in the same room where they are working on other projects.

Art majors also used to go the Technical Theater department for their woodworking needs but the equipment was not well suited for the fine arts. In scenic design, they do a lot of rip cutting. The saw blades are often multi-purpose and create a lot of chips and splintering in the plywood but it gets the job done fast. Thompson’s students are doing fine woodworking and in their new classroom they have table saws, band saws and jigsaws for a precision cut.

On the wall above the shop equipment are photos of student sculptures. “Vortex” is like a yellow funnel cloud composed of hundreds of individually cut wooden bricks. The piece was originally made for a school production of the Wizard of Oz. The student then went on to build a series of wooden lamps, and then Thompson says he became interested in language. He started interviewing friends who are graffiti artists and writing down their conversations. He drew the dialogue like graffiti on wood, and used the jigsaw to intricately cut out the words. Thompson’s guidance is leading students to very mature work. Just as she encouraged the class to further their ideas with the stencil project, here is a student taking a conversation with friends, and advancing it into a body of work, transforming dialogue, to graffiti, to sculpture.

“Right now we are trying an experimental class with costuming.” For the first time these two majors are working together, and Thompson is instructing in collaboration with the costume teacher Kathy Magistrelli.

“Art majors are working on a persona so they are creating characters and dolls, that have elements of their own personality,” she says. The tables are scattered with handmade doll parts waiting to be assembled. She picks up a clay head with flange neck for attaching to a body. “A lot of students have never created works in clay or hand building, so they started by building these dolls. They actually look like the students and have their personalities.”

Magistrelli takes the lead on pattern making and sewing, but Thompson also knows her way around a sewing machine. Her brother majored in tailoring in college, and as a student, Thompson took an interest in sewing and making her own clothing.

“I don’t walk into the room completely ignorant of drafting and tailoring and [Magistrelli] is well aware of the sculptural elements of theatre so it is a good partnership,” she says. “I’m teaching them to begin to work with the strengths of high artists and the strengths of costume design students. We’re getting them to work much more interdisciplinarily with other departments. ”

Thompson wants the dolls to have correct human proportions so her students began with anatomy studies and sketches from a skeleton. As with the hand-cut stencils, there is a high emphasis on the labors of doll-making. The students have to sand the heads smooth, and paint the bodies. Darts give the cloth torso an hourglass shape and the faces are sculpted with expressions, like a character doll. The finished piece must be freestanding.

“A lot of kids these days are so product driven and everything is so mass manufactured. I think kids make assumptions that when they make a painting it is not mass manufactured but when they make something else like a doll or a sculpture it can easily be replicated,” Thompson says.

Doll-making then becomes an existential dialogue between the artist and the work. In this early stage of disjointed doll parts, the bald heads with vacant eye sockets remind me of ancient devotional figures like the Uruk head of the Egyptian Old Kingdom and the votive statues of from the Abu Temple in Tel Asmar, Iraq. Like the votive statue, they are a stand-in for the real person; an intermediary between the human and spirit world.

“They start to talk to the dolls more, even the males, and they interact more with each other,” Thompson says. “They pick [the dolls] up and the relationships become much more personal. They have to go into the absolute core, work from the inside out; you can’t work from the outside in. So you learn so much more about how you created this figure. It has so much more of their personality, their essence in it. In a way, that is going to be a secret to the viewer. The viewer is never really going to see that sense of almost making it animated as they are working. It is not commercial any longer.  It is designed to have them inside.”

Doll-making has Thompson thinking about the figure, and its place in her work. While her sculptural work in Raku clay appears architectural, she feels the human presence is implied in the careful draftsmanship, which goes into the design and planning. She is now exploring the idea of figurative drawings, in which the human body is concealed by architecture or the natural environment.

“I have always been intrigued by parts of the Middle East and certain parts of countries like Turkey where you couldn’t easily see into the homes. They can look out through the grates, but it is harder for us to see in and perceive what is happening in their home, their environment. So I am starting to think I will make figures that you can’t easily see. Maybe there are some clues or elements that there is a figurative presence.”

She has long been interested in how philosophies and belief systems of different cultures are imprinted on their sites even after the people are driven out, often by war. Mosques become cathedrals, and then mosques again as battles are won and lost. The iconography may be destroyed or covered over like wallpaper. It may even be assimilated into the new culture as the Romans did with the Greeks.

“My work tends to be about people abandoning beliefs, or the system of ideas and beliefs is submerged,” Thompson says. “It’s like when we look at the gentrification of Over-the-Rhine, everything is really painted and decorative but some of the character of the original is still embedded in the walls like ghosts. We paint over them as if they don’t exist. So I am looking at the idea that the imprint of who people were is still embedded in the work. Most people just look at this as a decorative work rather than a presence.”

In the past Thompson was known for her large Raku sculptures of invented architectural fragments. During the firing process Raku pottery is rapidly heated. Then it is rapidly cooled in a post-firing reduction chamber of combustible materials. The combustibles can be sawdust, newspaper, or leaves. This firing technique causes unique effects such as iridescence, crackled glaze or a blackening on unglazed clay bodies.

“I fell in love with Raku, and also salt firing and saggar firings, because it was ritual,” Thompson says. She loved to make her own clay. The mixture was always so course she says no one else in her studio ever wanted to touch it.

“When you picked it up it felt like mortar,” she recalls, “a heavy sand-based mortar. That was so that it absorbed sulfates and any type of glazed material that got down into the surface.” Shaping the clay with her hands and then transferring it to the fire became a choreographed dance of direct and indirect contact. She felt the clay body was a living being she had to nurture in the fire without ever being able to touch it. She had to make all the right decisions otherwise her fragile vessel was destroyed.

Thompson preferred firing at night when the darkness heightened her senses. It helped her to build what she calls an “intense library of intuition” about the firing process. Perhaps she went into a trance-like state. She was no longer timing the clay firing, she sensed when it was time to open the kiln, when to sprinkle the combustible, when to starve the fire. She admits she was something of a pyromaniac watching the flames shoot up, then the smoke billowing out of the reduction chamber.

“Working at night helped me create really dynamic rituals and it also helped me expand and create new works.” She began experimenting with techniques she never learned in school or in books. She wrapped her pieces in salt soaked canvases.

“I love salt, the fact that historically it is sometimes the equivalent of gold,” she says. Thompson would wrap these salt soaked clay bodies in plastic and set them under a table to cure for weeks. “They almost looked like Christo’s work when they were stored.” When fired, she says the chemical changes caused the canvas to fuse into the clay in places. “The canvas is so strong but like particular clay bodies it can absorb. And I’d get these beautiful lines and marks from the cords I used to wrap up the piece. It was very personal; as if I found a real personal mark I didn’t see in other people’s work.”

Raku has been the vehicle for change and innovation. Without those long nights of trial by fire she wouldn’t see that she could push the medium in new ways, and then go beyond Raku. Her large sculptures took on the appearance of architectural fragments and have fooled some viewers into thinking they are an assemblage of found objects. I want to know why she never showed these near-trompeloeil works of ingenuity in class when I was a student. She pauses thoughtfully before answering.

“I don’t tend to ask my students to think about my work partly because I want them to think about their own work.” She recalls with some humor that she did show her work to a class a year ago and they didn’t get it. “They wanted to know if I took it off of an old building,” she says of her sculpture. “And then I showed them my large drawing pieces that are thousands of lines. The response at their age is ‘who has the patience for that?’”

There is a commotion in the next room and Thompson is jilted out of this reminiscing in fire and clay, salt and ritual. She moves swiftly toward the sound. “Just a second.” I follow her through the hall into the bustling classroom.

“Are there chairs falling down in here? Uh, Logan why are you over there? Go away.”

The boy slumps back from a girl’s easel.  “She was coloring in her close up with charcoal and I told her it was an ink wash. I was helping.”

“I accidentally put charcoal on here,” the girl is distraught.

“You’re forgiven” Thompson says.

“He made it seem like it was the end of the world man,” she says.

“Oh Olivia, think about the context.”

And now other students jump in with their questions. The room is brimming with inquiries, ideas, and the pleas of a dozen young people vying for the attention of one woman, with so much sage advice to give.

–Selena Reder

2 Responses

  1. What a wonderful article — full of engaging process, both physical and mental! You have captured the mind and eye of Thompson beautifully. Bravo.

  2. I was fascinated by this article and wished I were young enough and gifted enough to be in Althea Thompson’s classes at SCPA. Her students are being given a true gift in learning under her eyes.

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